For better and for worse, President Barack Obama has been reasonably
consistent in trying to put in place as policy some of the broad and
ambitious hopes he expressed during his campaign.
Many aspects of his broad vision are alarming to those who see a
larger and ever-growing government as more of a problem than a
solution. But we have to give him some credit for continuing to
challenge certain elements of his political base when he talks about
In a sense, of course, it is unhealthy for any president to be
discussing education in much detail. Those who attain the Oval Office
are by definition more skilled at all the grubby ways politicians
garner votes than at teaching or analyzing.
Expecting any president to “fix” education is unrealistic and an
aspect of the unhealthy “cult of the presidency” that has made the
president in popular culture more of an imperial monarch than a simple
That said, however, it will take a great deal more persuasion before
presidents stop acting as if they were the First Teacher. President
Obama is showing some constructive courage in that role.
Most significant, in his speech Tuesday to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber
of Commerce, was his advocacy of more widespread merit pay for
teachers, for making it less difficult to get bad teachers out of
classrooms, and for authorizing significantly more charter schools
throughout the country.
To be sure, the president had said such things in passing during the
campaign, but all these proposals are anathema to the teachers unions,
an integral part of the Democratic coalition (odd as it seems that the
great preponderance of teachers would be in one political party or
another). So there has been some question as to whether the president
would continue to express such deviations from orthodoxy once in office.
He has, and good for him.
Not all his ideas are so constructive, of course. The idea of one
single standard for testing might seem attractive on the surface, but
it has a faintly totalitarian whiff, treating students as uniform units
to be made to conform to a single standard rather than unique
individuals with unique talents and proclivities who learn in different
ways and at different rates. And the efficacy of extended preschool is
not as evident as some people believe.
There’s a big difference between making a speech and implementing
new policies, of course. But on education President Obama has made a